Why Congress Must Sanction Iran’s Drone Program

According to President Joe Biden’s administration, Iran has not only provided Russia with deadly drones but has deployed troops to Crimea who are “directly engaged on the ground” supporting operations against Ukraine. As the threat from Iranian drones rises, both in the Middle East and Europe, it is critical for Congress to place additional sanctions on Iran’s drone program and for the Biden administration to institute stronger pressure on the regime to hold it accountable for its aggression.

Russian armed forces have operated Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones to strike dozens of military positions on the front lines and deep into Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian intelligence has claimed that Iran has delivered 1,750 drones costing as little as $20,000, with Russia looking to acquire 2,400.

Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, present the most immediate and rapidly evolving danger to U.S. service members, partners, and interests in the Middle East. Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its advancing capabilities to launch complex strikes, notably with its attack on the critical Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia with two dozen ballistic missiles and drones in 2019, and with a precision strike at sea against the MT Mercer Street in 2021.

An even more frequent problem is Iran’s proliferation of relatively cheap drones to proxies in Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, and, in particular, the Houthis in Yemen who routinely use them to target American interests. This has enabled the Iranian regime to conduct indirect but widespread surveillance, harassment, and attacks on American and partner troops with minimal cost to itself. According to the Iran Projectile Tracker produced by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Iran and its proxies have fired over 1,100 drones at U.S. servicemembers, partners, and interests since 2017, including over 180 this year alone.

U.S. forces and partners in Iraq and Syria face frequent UAV and other projectile attacks from Iranian-backed militias located in both countries. America’s limited and inconsistent use of military force after these strikes has encouraged further Iranian-backed aggression. Recently, a drone struck the U.S. military garrison at Tanf, Syria in August. When Iran launched its largest bombardment in decades on September 28 at Kurdish groups in Iraq with seventy-three ballistic missiles and twenty drones, U.S. Central Command had to scramble for F-16 aircraft to shoot down one of the UAVs.

The Stop Iranian Drones Act, which aims to hinder Iran’s ability to manufacture and proliferate drones, has been making its way through Congress. This bill would make it binding U.S. policy to stop Iran and its partners from acquiring UAVs and require sanctions on anyone involved in the “supply, sale, or transfer” of Iranian drones by amending the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) Act. The United States has previously sanctioned those with ties to Iran’s drone program, but this legislation would enable the U.S. government to strengthen and broaden the list of designated entities.

The House passed a version of the bill in April, but the Senate sought to fold it into the FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass piece of annual legislation that funds the Department of Defense. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of the Stop Iranian Drones Act in June with an amendment filed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that puts any Iranian—including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—who attacks an American with a drone on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list for at least ten years.

Yet amid the growing links between Russia and Iran, the House Ways and Means Committee may push the Senate to halt its passage of this bill. The committee reportedly objects to including this bill in the NDAA because of a so-called “blue slip” issue, a term for the constitutional requirement for all bills that affect federal revenue to originate in the House. This reasoning is misleading, given that the House has already passed a version of the bill. Instead, Ways and Means’ decision is more likely an attempt to avert the sanctions the bill mandates so that the administration can keep open the possibility of future diplomacy with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Congressional leadership should work together to place additional sanctions on Iran’s drone program. Beyond sanctions, the Biden administration should also adopt a stronger Plan B policy for Iran that includes greater policy options and authorities for the CENTCOM Commander General Michael E. Kurilla to deter, interdict, and retaliate with military force to Iranian drone use and transfers.

Congress should be doing everything in its power to restrict the Iranian regime’s ability to manufacture, proliferate, and operate these deadly systems. Preventing the spread and use of Iranian drones is good policy. Conjured concerns about congressional process should not get in the way of that.

Lt Gen Chris Nowland, USAF (ret.) served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force and was a participant on the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2022 Generals and Admirals Program.

Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.

Originally published in National Interest.